Minnesota doesn’t stand still. It grows or contracts. It expands or shrinks. We move forward or we fall behind.
As a public policy matter, we must ask how and why Minnesota prospers or stumbles. The answer guides policy planning and, critically, how Minnesota invests billions in our human, economic, healthcare, education and transportation infrastructure.
It seems simple enough. We pool financial resources to invest in ourselves. We build schools because a well-educated, flexible and adaptable workforce is essential to Minnesota’s successful business climate. We invest in affordable healthcare because healthy people create prosperous, stable communities. We maintain safe, efficient roads and bridges because staying connected to the nation and the world puts food on our tables.
Yet, conservative public policy seeks a lesser, poorer, unjust version of Minnesota’s shared investment and shared prosperity. Conservative policy guides Minnesota’s investments into fewer, wealthier hands. It asks middle and low income Minnesotan’s to pay more and receive less while asking the very highest income earning Minnesotans to receive more and pay less.
The first policy vision creates growth. The latter doesn’t.
The post-recession Minnesota economy won’t return to 2005 or even 1995. It’s foolish to expect otherwise. Even a job as seemingly straightforward as convenience store clerking, a low-wage, minimal-skill position, requires an increasingly sophisticated understanding of retail technology and inventory management systems. Today’s cash registers aren’t the brass behemoths of a century past. They’re not even the low-profile NCR models of 20 years ago.
Contemplating change, it’s important to understand that earlier generation American technology is still churning out whatever it churned out in 1991, just not here. There’s a reasonably good chance that a metal press that was state-of-the-art two cycles back is pulling duty in a Chinese manufacturing plant.
The American writer, Peter Hessler, spent twenty years, on and off, living in and writing about China. His third and most recent China book, Country Driving, continues his chronicle of Chinese growth and change.
Curious about China’s booming manufacturing sector, he regularly traveled China’s newly expanded super highway system, poking around the transformed countryside. He saw 20- and 30-year-old American manufacturing machinery being installed in new factories. With low enough labor costs, the equipment was entirely capable of producing bottle caps, hooks, eyelets or whatever widget its design yielded.
As American manufacturers replaced old systems with newer, better, faster and more efficient machines, they sold the old stuff. Much of it ended up in China. China has cheap, low-skilled labor. China’s low labor costs, in effect, subsidized China’s manufacturing exports. Both China and the US prospered under this arrangement, moving forward together.
Here’s the important lesson. No one in China or Minnesota is interested, for exactly the same reasons, in returning to the past. There’s no growth, no prosperity to be found in falling backwards. Twenty- and 30-year-old widget-making machines, operating at increasingly lower profit margins and eventually at a loss, can’t compete with newer machines producing a better widget at a third of the cost, in a tenth of the time, using fewer but better paid workers.
Minnesota is a competitive, successful state because we have a talented, skilled and flexible workforce. Learning quickly and adapting to rapid change are hallmarks of Minnesota workers. Maintaining that tradition and advantage requires greater school investment than Minnesota’s present commitment. Crumbling, undercapitalized schools, roads, bridges and healthcare systems, like undercapitalized businesses, slowly but surely, produce decline, not growth.
Minnesota’s state policy leaders will squarely face this question once the legislative session convenes. If policymakers focus on what really matters—education, healthcare, jobs and growth—Minnesota will move forward.
If, instead, as conservative legislative leaders propose, policymakers spend three months leaping from one distraction to another, preserving ten years of conservative public policy direction, Minnesota will fall behind. The 20- and 30-year-old manufacturing machines will still be sold to China but new ones, creating new opportunity, won’t be installed here.
Or, Minnesota can change course. Using a balanced approach to control costs, policymakers can pair strategic budget cuts with modest tax increases on Minnesota’s highest income earners, investing in schools, healthcare and jobs. Minnesota can move forward or we can fall back. We just can’t stand still.